Wednesday, February 17, 2010

A Forward Look Back, Part 2

In part 2 we are going to look at a specific event  in the History of Film Preservation.  This will be the
Preservation Activities related to the Library of Congress Paper Print Collection.

         The Library of Congress Paper Print Collection is most certainly one of the Longest running Preservation Project in Motion Picture History.   Prior to 1912 there was no provision in the U.S.Copyright Law for Protection of Motion Pictures. In August of 1894 the first film was submitted for copyright, the Infamous "Edison Kinetoscopic Records of a Sneeze.", more commonly known as Fred Ott's Sneeze. It was submitted by W.K.L Dickson.  Dickson submitted this as a series of Photographs, as from past experience he knew Copyright Law afforded protection to Photographs. Beginning in about 1897 through to 1912 when the copyright Law was amended to include Motion Picture Films this is the method used to provide producing companies some level of comfort that there films were protected.  Basically what was submitted to the copyright office was a contact copy of the film on a light sensitive paper base.

         Between the period of 1894-1912 over 3000 of these "Paper Prints" were deposited in the U.S Copyright office  as registration documents.  Internally, these were handled much like any other registration documents and filed away and later moved to a vault location below the Library of Congress. Here they sat relegated to gathering dust until 1942 when as part of revamping and organizing the Copyright office per directive Librarian of Congress Archibald MacLeish they were rediscovered. Howard Lamarr Walls a copyright clerk tasked with compiling and reorganizing the copyright records has been credited with this rediscovery.  Upon closer examination of this material Walls realized he had located a treasure trove of the Infancy of the Motion Picture Industry, and over time was able to convince MacLeish that their was great value in this material. In 1943, Walls was put in contact with Carl Louis Gregory, Motion Picture Engineer of the National Archives Motion Picture Division.  Gregory was asked to investigate the possibility to re-copy this material back to film. It was his good fortune to contact Gregory as in 1909-1910 Gregory was a cameraman for the Edison Studios and produced some of these same "Paper Prints".  Modifying an optical printer he had designed for copying Brittle and shrunken film, Gregory began to experiment copying this material.

Howard Walls on Left, Carl Gregory on Right 1943, National Archives

      In early 1943 they exhibited samples to the Society of Motion Picture Engineers and an Appropriations Committee before Congress.  The results were received enthusiastically. At about the same time Director Richard Fleischer was developing a series for RKO/Pathe'  It was too be titled "Flicker Flashbacks" and was 
utilizing silent footage with voice over narration in a comic manner for purposes of parody.  The earliest of the "Paper Prints" copied by Carl Gregory in 1943-45 were used in these productions.  Because of the interest generated by these Paper Prints the Library of Congress after a short trial period created a Motion Picture Division with John Bradley as Division Head and Howard Walls as a curator.  In 1947 due to sever budgetary cuts the Motion Picture Division was liquidated. Howard Walls took it upon himself to solicit assistance with AMPAS  to keep this "Paper Print" Project going.  The Academy agreed to sponsor this effort, and hired Walls as Curator. Agreements were arranged for LOC to provide AMPAS with Paper Prints to begin to get this Project Rolling. Unfortunately, Howard Walls could never get the funding needed to
satisfy both LOC and AMPAS staff particularly Margaret Herrick to move this project forward.  As he sent more and more Paper Prints out rumors began to circulate that some were missing.  Ms. Herrick hired Kemp Niver , at the time working as a private detective to locate the missing Paper Prints. As Mr. Niver located the missing material, it also provided Herrick the opportunity to fire Howard Walls in 1952.  Kemp Niver dabbled in many areas, and he convince Margaret Herrick he could take over and complete this project, and  he was hired for this task.  Beginning in earnest in 1954 , Niver completed the approximate 3,000 titles in the mid 1960's.  The substantial difference being whereas Gregory and Walls copied onto 35m , Niver used 16mm film stock.  In the mid 1980's UCLA took up the mantle and decided to re copy this material onto 35mm film stock.  Utilizing the services of Bill Ault who had worked for Niver during the 1960's and modifying one of Niver's Old Printers UCLA went about the task  of remastering this material on to 35mm.  To say it was tedious was an understatement, copying all the images frame by frame, with ongoing issues with image stability caused by difficulty of frame registration. Still not totally satisfied with the final result, the Library went back to remastering these images themselves on 35 mm.   Here is a link to a piece I wrote in 1997 on that effort.  Ongoing Paper Print Restoration.

Today, new technologies continue to evolve, and some of this material is still being remastered for superior image quality at the Library of Congress Conservation Center in Culpepper,VA. 

Tomorrow: Part 3 examines some studies of Nitrate Film Storage and Handling tests in the 1930's and '40's. 


Joe Thompson said...

Thank you for the fascinating story. I remember when "Creature Features," a Saturday night program on KTVU-2 in Oakland/San Francisco announced that it was going to show some early horror movies. They turned out to be "Electrocuting an Elephant" and "Execution of Mary Queen of Scots." A good introduction.

Tinky said...

This is fascinating. I've seen several of the Edison prints, and I actually went with my godmother years ago to sort through some of them at the L of C, but I didn't realize they were trying new restoration techniques. Thanks!

ed said...

The Academy Librarian is Maragaret Herrick, not Harrick.